Episode 7 - Heartbeat! A Roaring Flame!

“One, two, three, even!”

Karaia's outstretched hand showed two extended fingers. Crimson had extended only his index finger in the little decider game. The odd numbered total meant that Niels would decide who went first, and he did not even need to bother to say it, moving his first token into his usable tempo before he even drew his five cards.

Drawing her own six, the teenager noted that her body was already shifting to a nervous state. She tried to calm herself, asserting mentally that it was ridiculous to be worried about a friendly game, and even sillier to be worried before even playing any cards, just because she had to go second. Her effort was in vain. She ended her turn feeling the same as when it began, despite having what she considered to be a fairly good hand.

“Red Seeker,” Crimson declared. As with Arielle, the creature formed in their shared perceptions before the tree in which it rested, but the imagery progressed seamlessly, 'blocking out' the presence of the many duelists watching. The two players, now locked in their experience link, would be focused almost completely on each other.

This made the audible groan of dismay that Crimson made in response to Karaia's next play seem a little disjointed, to her. The Grand Serpent, Vibra, slithered out of a crack in her strange world and into the edge of Crimson's forest. She ended her turn, already thinking.

“Togami, the Hitman,” Crimson continued, “Versus the Dominion.”

This time, the Aztotl Warrior appeared with a large axe-hammer rather than the boomerang he had wielded against Arielle's mostly-Affinity forces. Karaia ignored the many small 'intrusions' of other duelists, subconsciously, or in Arielle's case, purposely, connecting to her mindspace, and instead unleashed a huge flood over the cracked, sandy expanse of her side of that space, calling her Polyphonic Flo as she did so. The unnaturally rapid spread of the Coral now offered some protection to Vibra, so it was no surprise when the creature seemed to suddenly appear out of the shadows, on the limb where the Red Seeker waited, and make a hissing lunge for its prey.

Enhanced gravity and muscular control quickly allowed the bigger reptile to crush and overcome the smaller, and Vibra retreated quickly from the forest into a sheltering patch of exposed coral at the edge. Karaia exhaled, finding that her previous nervousness was lifting. She understood this situation much better now. Her opponent needed a good progression in order to dominate, and her own had matched it enough that having to go second would not necessarily be a drawback.

Niels Crimson found himself thinking similar thoughts, from the opposite 'side' of the situation. She had prevented him from progressing directly forward, and if he wanted to press her back, he would have to sacrifice another chance at gaining any real momentum. Despite this, he found himself leaning toward that path, in his plans, looking at his hand options. The words of his avatar came with a feeling much like 'confirmation', a manifestation of instinctive support of that path.

“She is a child, yes, but an amateur, no.”

Phoenix Alicia now joined Togami in the forest, and a shearing blast from an Air Cannon shattered the coral shelter of the Vibra, sending a dislodging ripple of energy all along the Polyphonic Flo, ejecting it from the conflict. Togami moved quickly to apply blade to serpent, ensuring that Alicia would not share the fate of Red Seeker, on the next turn, and clearing Karaia's side of the conflict.

“He actually used the Air Cannon for that,” Turquoise Temper noted. To the average player watching, the move was the right one, but to them, the reason would have been completely different. Karaia and Arielle, on the other hand, could infer quite a bit about the cards in Crimson's hand based on the fact that he had chosen to do that instead of building up his forces with a stronger creature. Karaia now planned how to use this potential information to her advantage.

Her next play came quickly. The Polyphonic Flo's ability to rearrange her forces meant she would not need to recalculate based on what card she drew. She already knew what it would be. The second Vibra that had been in her hand at the beginning of the duel slunk into the forest, and the Ghost Jellyfish she had set up to draw, moved calmly upriver. Crimson discarded a second Air Cannon, causing a nod of approval from Arielle that Karaia was altogether too engrossed in her own playing, to notice. The blonde girl ended her turn, and her dark-skinned opponent drew his card, then played a Gaia Rumble alongside Togami and Alicia.

Karaia's focus intensified slightly even before actually drawing the card, again, due to already knowing what it was. Her 'other half' reacted slightly to the card representation of itself as she drew it, but the play was nowhere near instant.

“To hold, or to move...” Karaia thought to herself, noting that her tempo could be used a bit more efficiently than the simple act of calling Temper into the conflict to get rid of the Phoenix Alicia. Temper's answer was 'move', and Karaia thought no more on the matter, simply trusting the part of herself closest to the art of the duel. A Darts Anemone and Polyphonic Flo appeared in the shallow water, and a Slipstream further infused that water with revitalizing energy. Phoenix Alicia's shriek was quickly muffled by Vibra's crushing force, and after some slight hesitation, Karaia's Ghost Jellyfish found its way close enough to Crimson's shimmering form to fire a distorting blast at his grid, causing it to flicker and lose some of its luster.

The Slipstream effect now allowed both the Jellyfish and the Vibra to retreat properly, riding the current on its return trip, so neither would be exhausted.

At no point of the duel had Crimson even tried to hide the fact that he was taking his opponent very seriously, and this was made even clearer by his next play. A Mammoth Trumpeter charged through the forest, making the call for which it was named, to get the attention of one of the Crimson Queen's many attendants. The one Crimson wanted in particular this time could easily be a massive force for change. He showed the card to Karaia, and in doing so, exposed it to most of the onlookers as well. Sables Duress.

The murmurs from the watchers now made the room buzz again. The card could wipe out all four of Karaia's current creatures, but the collateral damage would easily take the Mammoth Trumpeter and Togami with it. Even the least experienced players in the room were now wondering the same thing that came to Karaia's mind, from Temper.

“Is it a bluff?”

It could easily be, making her decision even harder even though she drew the Wormhole spell she had set up. There was no way to be sure of the man's level of conviction. Two of Karaia's creatures could not even attack him, and getting rid of them whilst losing the very creatures that would be needed to take advantage of the break in her defenses, would be nothing more than a trade. Still, she had the potential to at least try to defend herself.

Karaia sat silently for some time, calculating what was most likely to happen if she used the Wormhole on her own Ghost Jellyfish and took the chance to discard Sables. Finally, as the onlookers reached the threshold of 'restlessness' that could penetrate her concentration, she made her play, opting to take advantage of what she had present, rather than take the chance. A powerful splash revealed the Siren she called. Shiria came with a dark power, bringing back the Vibra that Togami had killed as well.

“She's calling his bluff...” someone muttered, sounding almost incredulous at the prospect of it. Karaia sighed, wondering to herself if the man sitting opposite her was really the type to 'threaten' something like Sables Duress and then not follow through with it.

The possibility made the decision of whether to attack, or not, even harder. Crimson seemed calm, ready for either possibility, which in turn made Karaia even more nervous. She was not used to opponents that were so completely unruffled. She looked over the cards in her hand again, trying to make the decision before she got caught up in more thinking and slowed down the duel further.

“Well, I'm clearly not in the better position, so I don't think I can attack,” she admitted to herself, before declaring aloud, “End turn.”

Immediately, Karaia could feel the nearly tangible wave of Arielle Dumas' disappointment, and found herself torn between two very different reactions. Temper's irritation at what he considered to be Nina's overly reckless nature, and her own calculating thoughts, now wondering if Arielle had seen or thought of something that Karaia herself had missed.

She did not have long to think about it, Crimson's next move confirmed her own feeling that this was not a man who would 'bluff' with what was currently the most powerful Phoenix in the game.

A shriek, and a burst of flame in the air, showed just how serious he was. Sables dived straight for the spot where Karaia's creatures had loosely gathered, and seemed to explode on impact, sending out a wall of flame that incinerated everything in its path, even Togami and the Mammoth Trumpeter, leaving only hissing scorched sand on Karaia's side, and ashen jungle on Crimson's. A few flickers of flame persisted on the body of the Gaia Rumble for a few seconds before the creature seemed to take notice of them and absorb them. Surprisingly, another, smaller Phoenix call followed this, as the Surprise Kite trailed Sables into the conflict, circling the larger firebird.

Karaia groaned, calculating and understanding that her first attack with the Jellyfish had made that possible, but her avatar did not let her lament for long. The arrival of the smaller Phoenix simply gave Temper 'something to do'. Crimson ended his turn without attacking with the awakened Gaia Rumble, a choice which seemed to confuse those watching.

“I call Turquoise Temper, to destroy your Surprise Kite, and another Polyphonic Flo.”

Temper's flames exceeded even those of the Phoenix, bringing it out of the sky in two bursts.

“You know,” Crimson laughed, “I just realized that ever since third turn, you've known exactly what you were going to draw, every turn, and you're about to know for another five turns yet. That must be really interesting, to constantly have that sort of knowledge.”

Karaia gave her answer whilst rearranging the five cards that Polyphonic Flo allowed her to work with, “You'd think so, but my main opponent just disrupts that anyway.”

Niels Crimson tilted his head, slightly puzzled by her answer. No card that could undo the effect of the Polyphonic Flo immediately came to mind, until Karaia jerked her head slightly in the direction of the dark haired girl next to her, and Crimson's mind made the connection. His last duel had shown him exactly what could do that. Arielle's NiaNia, Tradewinds Pixie.

“Ah, yeah... she's pretty... random.”

“She's just one big happy ball of 'random', believe me,” Karaia replied, clearly referring to Arielle rather than the card. She placed the final card on the top of her deck and passed the turn back to him, ignoring Arielle's pout. Crimson drew his card and spoke again.

“I don't think I can be random, but I hope to at least be surprising. Balamar, Ruler of the Skies!”

Karaia's thought began to form. The thought that Balamar's appearance was not actually surprising, and that she was actually almost completely prepared. Her thought did not finish forming. An Air Cannon blast impacted with Shiria's midsection as well, sending the Siren mage hurtling back out of the current zone of conflict, and practically stunning Karaia out of her comfortable machinations. Thoughts and heart began to race as Crimson declared his first attack. Balamar's great power meant that even an attempt to block would be futile. The War Dragon's breath washed over her, causing the golden sphere representing her Grid to flicker. The intensity of the feeling caused Karaia to tremble, and so, when the second attack began, the earthshaking advance of the Gaia Rumble, she made the Polyphonic Flo block the attack almost without a thought. It was only when Sables' shriek and the second burst of flame that covered her, both died away, that she realized she had made a grave mistake.

“I just lost...” she muttered to herself, almost as if in a daze. She moved one more tempo token into that zone, and drew her card, once again, planned; Imperial Blue. Then, Karaia Silvis bit her lip and wished she was 'stronger'.

Her words had not been audible to anyone else, but the massive downshift in her latent focus was obvious to Arielle, at least. Karaia remained this way for some time, looking at the Shiria and Wormhole in her hand, wishing that there were some way to just 'magically' get one more tempo, but the deed was done. Only eleven, and no Water creature in play.

“What just happened... why did I block?” the girl berated herself, “Am I really still so easily spooked that a fire blast makes me lose my focus and do this...?”

“Hey... you alright?” Crimson cut in. Karaia snapped out of her daze, unsure of just how long had passed since she had fallen into it. Steeling herself, she called Imperial Blue into the conflict. The massive Whale heaved, and breathed, sending Balamar and even the Gaia Rumble out of the conflict on water jet and surging wave. Karaia trembled, finding herself unable to think of anything other than getting the creatures away from her, and cast Wormhole on Sables Duress.

Temper flared, and pushed the human side of itself to declare an attack. Pointless though it was, the sight of the Salamander engulfing Crimson's golden protection sphere in its own blue-green flames seemed to restore some of Karaia Silvis' focus.

Beside her, Arielle's resonance had shifted to one of great concern, but Karaia could not reassure or dismiss the younger girl's worry in her current state. A Spotter Dragon appeared, but, rather than Balamar returning, the flames in the sky were those of Sables, as Crimson took no chances. Fire wave met flame field, but Temper's attempt to protect itself was futile, and the destruction of her avatar caused Karaia's energy levels to plummet even further.

“Stop it now... give up...” came Nina's pleading, “It's alright to just let it go, isn't it? You don't have to prove anything, he's just better than us.”

To the Sky Pirate's dismay, Karaia paid no heed. Shiria, Vibra, and a Sienna Startle now appeared in the conflict, and another massive heave from the Whale crashed a wave through the forest and against Crimson's defenses.

The Mammoth Trumpeter that Crimson played now, bellowed a different sound. This call did not sound like a 'call to arms', but rather a heralding blast. Phoenix Alicia appeared in the conflict already on one knee, making it all too clear who exactly the Mammoth was heralding. Crimson Diana emerged from the forest as if she had been watching nearby all along, and reached her open palm out towards Alicia, allowing herself to be infused by the fiery will of the smaller woman.

The Spotter Dragon roared triumphantly, a sound echoed by the Mammoth. Then, charging, once more, searing flame met golden sphere, except this time, when the flames died away, the sphere went with them, leaving Karaia defenseless.

Arielle flinched and involuntarily turned away, having just experienced what was about to happen, and finding herself unable to endure it again, even just through another. The slash was the same. Perfect graceful form as Diana's glaive distorted Karaia's mental projection of herself. She dropped to her knees as Arielle had, and Diana's words to her were the same, as well.

“As you were.”

The chattering from the onlooking group would make one think that they had all expected Karaia to somehow suddenly turn the tide of the duel back to her side. The murmurs prompted a similar thought within Niels Crimson.

“They really aren't used to seeing these two lose, are they...”

“With good reason,” Diana confirmed, “We are not used to having to try that hard, either.”

Arielle put her hand on Karaia's shoulder and shook her gently, checking to make sure that her rival was actually still conscious enough to process the fact that the duel had ended. Karaia was silent for a bit longer, before letting out a mournful sigh and addressing Niels Crimson again.

“Good game, I guess.”

The empathic man easily picked up on the implication, and immediately decided he was having none of that. There were already too few players with the confidence to actually want to face him, and he was not about to lose another.

“It's been a long time since I played someone who I outright could not attack until the eighth turn,” he said seriously, fixing his eyes on Karaia to further indicate his sincerity.

Karaia laughed, a bit emptily, before answering, “You mean to say you never draw poorly?”

“Hm, I guess that was exaggerating a bit, but it also isn't quite what I meant,” Niels corrected, “I didn't draw badly today. I had creatures to attack with, it just wasn't ever safe.”

“Ah,” Karaia said, showing no sign of being comforted by his words. She began to gather up her cards. Niels considered asking for a rematch, but a light 'scan' of her state made him think better of it. He could only hope that the fire within her that Crimson Diana found so interesting, had not lost its intensity due to the outcome of one duel.

“Anyone else want to play?” he asked the room, resigned to the fact that he could not do much to console his two defeated opponents. A chorus of murmured negative responses filled the air, causing him to sigh inwardly. He had played too seriously too soon.

“Oh come on, guys, it's just a game,” Arielle chided them, as she appeared to 'playfully' yank Karaia out of the seat. Only through his athletic training did Niels notice the shift in Arielle's weight, the movement and form that indicated she was actually partly supporting Karaia's body.

“It's not as fun when you just know you're gonna lose,” one boy chimed in.

Arielle pouted and taunted him. “You say that, but you still try to duel me, don't you?”

“Yeah, but you couldn't beat him either,” another pointed out. The reactions caused Niels to 'sigh' once more.

“It appears we overdid it,” Diana noted, her words directed at Nina and Temper, as Crimson also rose from his seat.

“A lot of people here have enough senses to feel how strong you are,” Nina agreed, “Even if they thought they could win based on play style, they still won't try after what you just did to Karaia.”

Nina's explanation prompted Karaia to feign a playful shove before standing on her own. Without a word, she walked away to one of the other free tables, toward the back of the shop, which was now empty. The small crowd dispersed a little, into little pods of friends, apparently to discuss what they had just seen, and Niels' deck. Arielle moved to follow Karaia after a few moments, and was surprised to note that Niels did the same. She let the man have the seat opposite Silvis, moving to get a chair of her own, and placing it such that it would be clear no rematch was going on. The trio sat in silence for about a minute before Niels finally spoke again, to Karaia.

“So... you okay?”

“Shaken, not stirred...” Karaia answered feebly. The low volume, combined with her slightly slurred speech, made Niels unsure that he had heard her correctly, a fact that was reflected in the quizzical expression on his face.

“She likes spy movies,” Arielle clarified, assuming that Niels had not quite 'got' the reference.

“I am serious,” Niels projected in tandem with Diana, concern carrying on the thought wave.

“I'm fine,” Karaia answered, composing herself, “Just my pride hurt, s'all.”

“That is the part we are worried about,” Niels continued, not even bothering to correct the 'royal we' in his speech, as he had trained himself to do.

“I guess you're really not asking if I can handle losing, are you...?” Karaia sighed, fidgeting with her hairband and averting her eyes to one side.

“I considered you a serious opponent and put my all into it,” Niels replied, “That's the kind of person I am. When I find real competition I don't hold back. But you are still a kid...”

“Don't remind me,” Karaia sighed. Niels' confused expression prompted her to continue, “According to the age groupings, I am not. Arielle is 'still a kid'. I need to be able to handle you and anyone around your age, or even higher. I shouldn't be losing my cool because you can make me see your Balamar's fire. I shouldn't even be scared of fire!”

“It's not as simple as that,” Niels pointed out, lowering his voice in the hopes it would cause her to control the volume of her own, “No one can be at the top of their game at every moment. You're going to have off days no matter how good you are.”

“That's what you think this is?” Karaia hissed, attempting to control Temper, “Just one of my 'off days'? I played my best just now except for one move and it cost me the game completely.”

“Yeah but that's just how Chaos Fractal is,” Niels continued, “Besides, if she is your main rival, I'm willing to bet you're not exactly used to massive flame bursts breaking your concentration.”

“Mm... nah,” Karaia pondered, “She's more the 'exploding flower pods' and 'giant beetles' type.”

“Is so true,” Arielle smiled, causing Karaia to almost immediately switch back to her analytics.

“I keep telling you that you need to swap Rutelini for Amir Landau. I'll even get you one!”

“But I don't wanna!” Arielle countered, her last syllable extending into a whine, “I like beetles.”

Niels smiled. He recognized this type of friendly rivalry. As long as these two had each other, they would be fine.